September 19, 2013

Let’s Stop Treating Our Soil Like Dirt – Part 1

Angela Smith

Angela Smith

Project Adviser

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Soil Sample-angela-2013“Let’s stop treating our soil like dirt.” So proclaims my favorite bumper sticker of all time. It’s clever. It’s funny. And you sort of have to be in the know to even get it. There is a lot to know about soil.

Soil is an amazing ecosystem unto itself. It is complex, alive, and dynamic. Fully one-third of all living organisms on Earth reside beneath our feet, in the soil. Even before we had microscopes to help us peer into this other world, we knew that it was special. Poets have written about it. Songs have been sung. The creation stories of so many religious traditions have, at their base, soil. Why? Because it is the foundation of life, and we could not survive without it.

My own love affair with soil began as a child when I spent countless hours making mud pies, digging in the sand, tending the flower beds next to our house. It was brought to a new level a few years ago when I took the Master Composter class through the University of Maryland Extension. I couldn’t get enough. I gave presentations all over Baltimore to convince people to compost and use that compost to improve our often marginal city soils. At dinner, I captivated my friends and family by referencing soil and compost as they related to all sorts of different academic fields:

History: “Did you know that oldest existing reference to composting was found on a set of clay tablets from the Akkadiam Empire which flourished in the Mesopotamian Valley 1,000 years before the birth of Moses?”

Economics: “Have you seen Ken Burns’ documentary about the Dust Bowl? I did some more research and learned that soil erosion is still a big problem. It costs the U.S. around $38 billion per year in lost productivity.”

Literature: “After all, Shakespeare’s Hamlet advises, “Do not spread the compost on the weeds…” (they will love it and flourish!)

Politics: “Civilizations rest on the health of their soil. FDR once said that “a nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

Biology: “Soil is amazing. In just one cup of undisturbed native soil there are 200 billion bacteria and 328 feet of fungi.”

Music (à la the Banana Slug String Band and because I have a 4-year old):
Dirt made my lunch, Dirt made my lunch.
Thank you Dirt, thanks a bunch,
For my salad, my sandwich, my milk and my munch ’cause Dirt,
you made my lunch.”

Environmental Studies: “We can do better. A typical landfill contains 75% of things like paper, yard waste, and food scraps that could be composted and then used to return fertility to the soil.”

And the one fact that most stops me in my tracks, but which I cannot easily categorize: It can take an average of 500 years to form just one inch of topsoil, depending on conditions. Because of this, some consider soil to be a non-renewable a resource, the same as oil or gas. To me, it makes soil more valuable than all of the gold in the world. This is especially true when you consider that it is being lost by water, wind, and poor farming practices at rates 10 to 40 times faster than it is being renewed.

Our lives depend on soil. So do the lives of everything else with which we share this planet. The mere idea of soil permeates our emotional, spiritual, and intellectual lives in ways that we rarely consider because humanity and soil are so bound up with each other. But this failure to care for it explicitly or, worse yet, to mistreat and abuse it has made a giant mess of things. Many scientists believe that soil erosion and degradation pose as big a threat to the environment as climate change and population growth; some even argue that it’s more significant than those. Of course, most of us have probably never heard that soil loss and pollution are quite that serious. Soil may not be as charismatic as a polar bear or as sexy as a windmill, but it really, really matters.

I feel incredibly responsible to the soil that I have inherited on my farm. I feel a kinship to it. I intend to nurture it to the very best of my ability and that starts with finding out more about it. First step: take a soil sample, then wait and see what comes back from the lab. Check out my next posting for that part of the story.

Photo: Angela Smith, 2013.

>> Read the next installment by Angela Smith, Let’s Stop Treating Our Soil Like Dirt – Part 2

<< Read We Bought the Farm, also by Angela Smith


  1. Bravo Angela! Very good piece. The soil is very important. I like how you’ve pulled from different areas – economics, history, Shakespeare, etc. I didn’t know top soil was such a limited commodity. Thanks for the education.

  2. Posted by Rowland Orr

    Hi, I too 15-20 odd years ago saw the bumper sticker “let not treat our soil like dirt”. It too was my favorite bumper sticker. But I could never find one. Do you know where I can find one. Thank you, sincerely, Rowland Orr

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